Little grips people’s imaginations like stories of what might have been, alternative histories where zeppelins fill the skies, the Nazis won WW2 and JFK was never assassinated.
One such speculative tale revolves around a subject already heady with conspiracy and legend — the Apollo moon landings. We can only imagine what alternative history would have unfolded if the program hadn’t been cancelled, but continued to explore the Moon.
Official history tells is that the last time man ever went to the Moon was in December 1972, when Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent a record breaking three days on the lunar surface.
But more Apollo missions were originally planned — Apollo 18, 19 and 20 having already begun construction or in the latter planning stages when they were cancelled in 1972, a combination of declining public interest and budget cuts making the once prestigious moon program fall out of favour in Washington.
Science fiction can speculate on what would have happened if these programs had gone ahead. Perhaps we would have habitable colonies on the Moon today, or staging posts for trips to Mars. And maybe we would have explored the dark side of the Moon, long rumoured to contain remnants of an ancient alien civilization.
In 2007, a mysterious figure took to video sharing website YouTube with evidence that this incredible scenario was not speculative fiction, but a clandestine fact, one hidden from the world to protect the truth about what they had found on Earth’s closest neighbor.
A user calling himself retiredafb posted a number of videos purporting to be footage of a secret Apollo 20 mission, jointly manned by US and Soviet astronauts, that took place in August 1976.
Retiredafb identified himself as William Rutledge, a now elderly and retired Nasa astronaut, in exile in Rwanda, who took part in the secret Apollo 20 mission alongside fellow astronauts Leona Marietta Snyder and Alexei Leonov.
According to Rutledge, Apollo 20's mission was to explore the polar region of the Moon, on its dark side, to investigate images supposedly taken by Apollo 15 of the area which showed what appeared to be a vast ancient city and a huge, miles-long crashed spacecraft.
Rutledge’s footage would be astonishing if true, as it shows both the alien city and a flyover of the cigar-shaped spaceship. The videos then cut to the Apollo 20 crew actually exploring the interior of the crashed ship, and perhaps most amazingly of all discovering the body of a human-like alien.
Dubbed ‘Mona Lisa’ by the astronauts, the body appeared to have been that of a young woman, partially mummified with a thin layer of a waxy substance covering its skin. She appeared to be locked into the controls of the spacecraft by a device connected to her eyes and nose.
In an interview with Italian journalist Luca Scantamburlo, Rutledge went into more details about their discovery of Mona Lisa, explaining that the EBE — Extraterrestrial Biological Entity, appeared to be neither alive or dead, but in some kind of state of suspended animation.
According to Rutledge, the alien was disconnected from the navigational device and returned back to Earth aboard the lunar module, where the body still resides today.
Rutledge also described the ship — “We went inside the big spaceship, also into a triangular one. The major conclusions of the exploration were: it was a mothership, very old, that crossed the universe at least a billion years ago”.
Understandably, due to the sensational nature of the videos, Rutledge’s posts to Youtube gathered millions of hits. But soon after he claims his account was hacked and the videos deleted. Was NASA trying to destroy the evidence of this most secret of missions?
If so, it did not work. Quickly Rutledge and others would set up multiple mirrored versions of the videos on several different video sharing websites, and they remain widely available.
But did NASA, or anyone, really need to worry? For many the story was simply too incredible to be believable. Indeed, more than one commentator noted how similar Rutledge’s claims were to a variety of science fiction films.
Could there be any truth in the Apollo 20 story?
Hidden in plain sight
Photographs of the lunar surface taken by Apollo 15 in 1971 do appear to show some strange anomalies in the Delporte-Izsak region in the southern region of the Moon’s dark side.
An unusual cigar-shaped object situated on the edge of a crater can clearly be seen in several of the NASA photographs circulating on the internet, including those on NASA’s own website. The feature looks to have mass and form and seems to sit on top of the Moon’s surface rather than be a part of it.
The spacecraft shown in Rutledge’s footage is a very close match for this object in both size and shape, but with far more surface detail evident. The videos of the supposed Apollo 20 flyover of the craft show it to be stone like in texture but covered in intricate carvings and patterns that could not possibly be natural.
If the footage is a hoax, then the creators have avoided the obvious temptation to make their spaceship metallic and futuristic looking, instead opting for a curious megalithic design replete with elaborate decoration.
Attention to detail
Rutledge’s account of the Apollo 20 mission and his video footage have been met with widespread skepticism. But If they are a hoax he has managed to insert some authentic details into his story that at give it some hint of verisimilitude.
Whilst Rutledge and Leona Marietta Snyder appear in no official lists of NASA or Soviet astronauts, Alexei Leonov was an internationally respected Soviet cosmonaut best known for becoming the first man to walk in space in 1965.
For hoaxers to include such a high profile figure as Leonov was risky, as he could simply have come out with unassailable proof that he was elsewhere at the time of the mission and the whole deception would instantly fall apart.
Was this bold choice of using a real cosmonaut actually evidence for Apollo 20's authenticity? One figure shown briefly in the videos even looks like Leonov, which at least attests to an attention to detail.
Other aspects of the footage show that, if a hoax, the creators had access to either real Apollo mission hardware or a very good replica of it. Several shots in the videos showing the interior of the lunar module are exact and impressive replica of the real thing.
An Apollo 20 badge, complete with the names of the three astronauts, is also visible in some frames as further proof this is not simply recycled footage from one of the earlier official Apollo mission.
If Rutledge was really an imposter, then this part of the video was well produced. He must have had a decent sized budget to replicates a whole Apollo module interior inside a studio, indicating this was a professional operation.
Alternatively, he may have somehow secured access to a real Apollo lunar module housed in a museum, although it seems unlikely any museum would ever consent to the filming of a hoax video in such a location.
Was the real reason Rutledge’s depiction of the modules interior was so accurate because it was genuinely filmed aboard a secret Apollo 20 mission to the Moon?
A face in the darkness
The are numerous examples of researchers and investigators discovering anomalous artifacts and structures in NASA photographs, both of the Moon and other planets in the solar system.
Author and lecturer Richard C Hoagland is a proponent of many such claims, most famously that of the ‘Face on Mars’ a striking formation in the Cydonia region of the planet’s surface that Hoagland insists is a giant alien statue of a human-like face.
Like many such observations, Hoagland’s work is based on poor quality, blurry photos, often nth-generation copies found on the internet. Invariably, when higher quality source images are found, many of these seemingly artificial structures prove to be optical illusions.
That proved to be the case when newer, far higher resolution images gathered by probes such as NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor in 2003 showed the Cydonia face was merely a Martian hill, an entirely natural structure that only vaguely resembled a face when illuminated at the right angle.
Hoagland’s work is an example of a psychological phenomenon called pareidolia, the tendency of the human mind to perceive significant patterns where there are none. Often this takes the form of seeing human faces or animals in abstract or formless images.
William Rutledge’s story of Apollo 20 begins with the premise that Apollo 15 captured images of a giant cigar-shaped mothership on the dark side of the Moon. Many of the images circling on the internet today do show what appears to be an artificial object, but they are low resolution and lack detail.
Like the Face on Mars, when higher quality source images are referenced, this ‘mothership’ is shown to be an optical illusion. The structure is merely a long hill on the lunar surface, which when in deep shadow appears to resemble a cylindrical object.
With Rutledge’s alien spacecraft vanished into dust, much of his story disappears with it. How could the crew of Apollo 20 have explored a spaceship that does not exist?
Showing that the ‘spacecraft’ in the photographs is simply a hill does not prove Apollo 20 never flew, but if it did its mission as stated by Rutledge is a deception.
Could the spacecraft story be deliberate misinformation to hide Apollo 20's real mission in a cloak of absurd sounding science fiction? Or did the apocryphal mission never even get off the ground?
The elephant in the room
The American’s mammoth Saturn V rocket remains the only vehicle ever developed that was capable of taking a payload further than low-earth orbit. As such, all of the Apollo moon missions were launched using Saturn V rockets.
Between 1966 and 73, 13 of the rockets were successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center, twelve of them for Apollo and one for SkyLab. A further two were constructed but never used and are now on display in museums and space centers across America.
This presents a serious problem for William Rutledge’s story about a secret Apollo 20 mission. Since the Saturn V was the only rocket capable of propelling a payload beyond Earth orbit, and since all of the known Saturn V rockets are accounted for, how did Apollo 20 even leave the Earth?
In order for the Apollo 20 mission to have occurred, we have to propose either the USA had built more Saturn V rockets in secret or that they or the Soviet Union had developed other completely unknown rocket technologies that were capable of sending men to the Moon.
Construction of the Saturn V was a massive effort involving tens of thousands of engineers, designers, scientists and contractors all around the world. The rocket was also vastly expensive, each one cost over $3 billion dollars — so expensive that the cost was one of the main reasons the Apollo program was canceled by President Nixon.
After construction, the next challenge was the logistics of storing and transporting something so huge. Specialists buildings and vehicles had to be designed, and the moving of the rocket to the launch site involved thousands of people.
Even if it was possible to keep all of this completely secret, the real problem is the launch itself. According to Rutledge, Apollo 20 was launched from Vandenberg Air Force base, an installation that is located close to several large towns and cities in Santa Barbara. There is even a public rail line that runs right alongside the base.
The launch of any rocket, let alone something as huge as a Saturn V, would be visible for hundreds of miles around, unmissable to hundreds of thousands of people throughout Southern California. Civil aviation and air traffic control would have to be notified, as would numerous other public bodies.
It would essentially be impossible for a secret launch to have occurred from Vandenberg, all but confirming the Apollo 20 story as a hoax. A confirmation that would soon come from the hoaxer himself.
The art of deception
French sculptor Thierry Speth claimed responsibility for the Apollo 20 hoax on an internet bulletin board in 2007. Speth’s use of the username retiredafb elsewhere on the internet was also exposed by several researchers.
Although Speth admitted the videos were a hoax, this has not deterred posters on websites and internet forums propagating the videos as genuine, either unaware of Speth’s admission or choosing to ignore it.
One line of reasoning has it that Speth’s confession is itself a hoax, simply an attempt at damage limitation or misinformation from NASA. But a closer look at the videos Speth posted under the pseudonym of William Rutledge show the clear fingerprints of fakery.
Since the hoaxers were obviously unable to produce their own footage of the Moon, they had no alternative but to use existing NASA photos of the lunar surface in order to create their footage, a fact which makes the task of producing undetectable fakes virtually impossible.
Several of the shots of the Moon’s surface used in the videos are unmistakably composites using such NASA photographs with fictional elements added by the hoaxers.
One of the film’s most striking sequences was created in this way. The panning shot showing what appears to be a vast alien city on the lunar surface is actually a digital composite created from an Apollo 17 moon photo combined with a painting of alien landscape by artist Bruce Pennington.
The next sequence in the videos showing the alien mothership look very much like they were filmed using models, with the wobbly looking flyover of the craft been perhaps the least convincing part of the whole film.
Thierry Speth is a sculptor by trade, and he appears to have put his talents to good use in creating the ‘Mona Lisa’ alien body. Indeed, several of the artworks shown on his website have a strong resemblance to the body seen in the videos.
As beguiling as she seems, Mona Lisa is in all likelihood a clay sculpture, created by Speth as the centrepiece of his hoax. She bares all the hallmarks of the artist’s previous works and whilst very artfully designed, does not convince as a real body in most of the shots in the video.
The cavalier attitude towards the alien body is also giveaway as to its unreality. No quarantine protocols are evident, and the unqualified astronauts perform crude medical procedures on the alien that clearly would never be allowed in a real NASA mission.
There’s no doubt that the tale of Apollo 20 and its secret mission to investigate aliens on the Moon is a fantastic story. We all want it to be true, which might explain why basic critical faculties are often suspended when the story is recounted on the internet.
Those who want to believe will find a way to keep Apollo 20's incredible adventure to the dark side of the Moon alive regardless of the facts. As alternative history, it is more captivating than mere reality.